The naval order of 24 October 1918 was a plan made by the German Admiralty at the end of World War I to provoke a decisive battle between the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet in the southern North Sea.
When the order to prepare for the sortie was issued on 29 October, mutiny broke out aboard the German ships. Despite the operation being cancelled, these in turn led to the more serious Kiel mutiny, which was the starting point of the November Revolution and the proclamation of the Weimar Republic.
This operation resulted from the exchange of diplomatic notes, beginning on 05 October 1918, between the new German government under Prince Max of Baden and President Woodrow Wilson, in which Germany asked the President to mediate an armistice. One of Wilson’s preconditions was the cessation of Germany’s submarine war. Despite the objections of Admiral Scheer, the Chief of the German Admiralty Staff, the German Government made this concession on 20 October. The U-boats at sea were recalled on 21 October. In response, on 22 October Scheer ordered Admiral Hipper, commander of the High Seas Fleet, to prepare for an attack on the British fleet, utilizing the main battle fleet, reinforced by the newly available U-boats. Hipper’s order was promulgated on 24 October; Scheer approved it on 27 October. The Fleet then began to concentrate at Schillig Roads off Wilhelmshaven to prepare for the battle.
The High Seas Fleet in October 1918 was built around the core of 18 battleships and 5 battlecruisers, most of which had been completed before the outbreak of war. Since the Battle of Jutland in May 1916, the obsolete pre-dreadnoughts had been de-commissioned, two new battleships with 15-inch guns (Baden and Bayern) and the new battlecruiser Hindenburg had joined the fleet, but one dreadnought battleship Rheinland had been damaged beyond repair by running aground in the Baltic. The fleet had undertaken only three major sorties at full strength into the North Sea since June 1916: 18-19 August 1916, 18-19 October 1916, and 22-25 April 1918. This prolonged period of relative inactivity, at a time when all other branches of Germany’s armed forces were very heavily engaged, did much to undermine the morale of the crews and the self-respect of the officers. Acts tantamount to mutiny took place on various occasions during 1917, the most noteworthy being the arrest of 200 men from the battleship Prinzregent Luitpold in August, resulting in two executions.
Royal Navy (Grand Fleet)
In late October 1918 the British Grand Fleet, based at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth, had 35 dreadnought battleships and 11 battlecruisers (including two of the very lightly armoured Courageous class). Twenty of these ships had been completed since the outbreak of war, and a third of them were armed with the highly effective 15-inch gun; the oldest capital ship in the fleet was Indomitable (commissioned in June 1908) while HMS Dreadnought was put in reserve in July 1918. Five of these ships were from the United States Navy and one from the Royal Australian Navy.
The materiel problems which beset the Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland and beyond (i.e. poor flash-protection in ammunition handling, lack of deck armour over magazines, deficient armour-piercing shells, and too few destroyers) had all been remedied to various extents. In particular, the newly designed “Green Boy” shells for the fleet’s heavy guns were thought to be such a great improvement in offensive power that they nullified the advantage of the heavier armour protection of German battleships. Moreover, the fleet possessed new weapons (such as ship-borne torpedo aircraft and fast steam-driven submarines) for which the German fleet had no match.
The second wave of the Spanish Flu pandemic reached its peak in the Grand Fleet in autumn 1918; roughly 6% of the Fleet’s sailors were taken ill, and 1% died. For example, sick list of the light cruiser HMS Cardiff peaked at 19 people (6% of her complement) on 23 October 1918; but it had returned to its usual level (2 persons) by 31 October; the destroyer HMS Torch of the 12th Destroyer Flotilla was more seriously hit, with 37 (41% of her crew) on the sick list on 31 October.
The morale in the British Fleet was high in anticipation of a re-match for Jutland, the personality and leadership of the Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Sir David Beatty, being an important reason for this.
British Fleet (Admiralty Intelligence)
In the First World War British naval intelligence in general, and code-breaking in particular, was highly efficient. It played a very important role in the battles of Dogger Bank and Jutland, in the American entry into the war on the Allied side and the defeat of the U-boats from 1917-1918. By late 1917 improvements in German communications security had made intelligence gathering more difficult, at least as far as the High Seas Fleet was concerned. Between October 1917 and April 1918, the Germans were able to launch three surprise sorties into Norwegian waters against mercantile traffic, on the last occasion (22-25 April 1918) employing their whole fleet. Each time the British did not receive a warning in time to mount an effective counter-operation.
High-power wireless communications were essential for the control of U-boats at sea; but this also allowed triangulation-based location of the U-boats by the Allies. In addition, U-boats employed a simpler cypher system than that used by the surface fleet, which Room 40, the British Admiralty’s code-breaking section, could usually read with few difficulties. In October 1918 these methods allowed the Admiralty to track the U-boats operating in British Home Waters.
The order of 24 October for the High Seas Fleet’s attack is as follows:
Commander of the High Seas Fleet
Op. 269/A I
SMS KAISER WILHELM II, [b] 24.10.1918
A. Information about the enemy
It is to be supposed that most of the enemy forces are in Scottish east coast ports, with detachments in the Tyne, the Humber and the Channel.
The enemy will be brought to battle under conditions favorable for us.
For this purpose, the concentrated High Seas forces[d] will advance by night into the Hoofden, and attack combat forces and mercantile traffic on the Flanders coast and in the Thames estuary. This strike should induce the enemy to advance immediately with detachments of his fleet[e] toward the line Hoofden/German Bight. Our intention is to engage these detachments on the evening of Day II of the operation, or to have them attacked by torpedo-boats during the night of Day II or III. In support of the main task the approach routes of the enemy from east Scottish ports to the sea area of Terschelling will be infested by mines and occupied by submarines.
i) Departure from the German Bight by day, out of sight of the Dutch coast;
ii) Route through the Hoofden so that the attack on the Flanders Coast and the Thames Estuary takes place at dawn on Day II;
iii) The Attack:
a) against the Flanders coast by the commander of the 2nd Torpedo-Boat Flotilla with Graudenz, Karlsruhe, Nürnberg and the 2nd Torpedo-Boat Flotilla.
b) against the Thames estuary by the 2nd Scouting Group with Königsberg, Köln, Dresden, Pillau and the 2nd Torpedo-Boat Half-Flotilla
Covering of a) by the fleet and b) by the C-in-C of the Scouting Forces;
iv) Return so as to reach the combat area favorable to us, near Terschelling, one or two hours before nightfall on Day II.
v) Protection of the return (Day II) by part of the 8th Flotilla
vi) Mine laying by the leader of 4th Scouting Group with 4th Scouting Group (supported by minelayers by Arkona[f] and Möwe[g]) and the 8th Flotilla, on the approaches of the enemy, in accord with plan No. I.
vii) Disposition of submarines on the enemy routes in accord with plan No. III
viii) Attack by torpedo-boats during the night of Day II to III, in case an encounter has already taken place, from near the Terschelling Light Vessel towards the Firth of Forth, in accordance with the orders of the commander of torpedo-boats. On the meeting of the torpedo-boats with the fleet in the morning of Day III, see the following order;
ix) Entrance into the German Bight by departure route or by routes 420, 500 or 750, depending on the situation;
x) Air reconnaissance: if possible.
The plan called for 25 U-boats to be deployed in six lines in the southern North Sea, in the hope of ambushing British ships sailing to counter-attack the German Fleet raiding forces. Other U-boats were to undertake special operations involving British Naval Bases. On 23 October seven U-boats at large in the North Sea (U-108, UB-86, UB-121, UB-125, UB-96, UC-58 and U-60) were diverted by wireless signals to take up positions off Rosyth, in order to give the alarm when the British Fleet sailed, and hopefully launch attacks. In addition, U-43, also at sea, was directed to take up a watching position near the Tyne. Starting on 24 October, the other U-boats began departing from their base at Heligoland to their patrol areas.
Two of these U-boats were lost. The first, U-78 (Oblt. Johann Vollbrecht), sailed on 27 October from Heligoland for a minelaying mission off the Scottish East Coast, but she was torpedoed and sunk the same day by the British submarine G2 in the central North Sea, roughly 280 nautical miles (520 km; 320 mi) east of the Firth of Forth. All 40 crewmen were lost.
The other submarine to be sunk was UB-116, which sailed from Heligoland on 25 October with special orders to attack the British fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow. She was commanded by the 26-year-old Oberleutnant zur See Hans Joachim Emsmann who, since first becoming a U-boat captain in February 1918, had sunk a total of 26 ships. She attempted to enter Scapa Flow submerged by the southern passage, Hoxa Sound, on the evening of 28 October. Hydrophones mounted ashore at Stanger Head, Flotta, alerted the British defences, and the sea-bed magnetometer loops, designed to detect the magnetic signatures of incoming vessels and thus trigger remote-controlled mines, were activated. Emsmann raised his periscope at 11:30 pm, presumably to check his position, and was spotted by look-outs on shore; the mines detonated shortly thereafter, leaving the submarine disabled on the sea bed. She was finished off by depth charges from defence trawlers shortly thereafter; all 37 crew members were lost.
Two other submarines, UB-98 and UB-118 were damaged in collision with each other on 28 October, and had to return to port. Two others, UB-87 and UB-130 also aborted their missions due to breakdowns.
The commanders of the British Fleet were anticipating action, and the fleet was warned to make preparations as early as 14 October 1918. On the afternoon of 23 October the Admiralty alerted Admiral Beatty that the situation was abnormal and that they would reinforce him by sending destroyers from the anti-submarine flotillas based at Plymouth and Buncrana. By late on 28 October the situation was reaching a climax, and Vice Admiral Sydney Fremantle, the Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff and Rear Admiral Reginald Hall, the Director of Naval Intelligence sent Beatty a full appreciation which read, in part:
Dispositions of enemy submarines combined with positions of their large minefield recently laid and now clear constitutes fairly decisive evidence of his desire to draw the Grand Fleet out … No evidence of how he proposes to achieve this object but evidence that no move of his battlefleet can take place before … tomorrow night. No objective of the enemy is apparent that will not involve great risk for him. Therefore he may confine himself to emerging from the Bight and returning after making us aware of his exit by W/T signals. Unlikely the enemy will risk fleet action until the Armistice negotiations are settled one way or another. Press reports of German submarines proceeding home via the Norwegian Coast probably emanate from Germany and are intended to conceal existence of submarine trap.
For the next 48 hours, Fremantle was able to keep Beatty informed of developments, correctly describing the concentration of the High Seas Fleet at Schillig Roads on the evening of 29 October and its intention to sail on 30 October. Hipper’s unexpected postponement of the operation on 30 October was initially ascribed to fog.
Cancellation of the Plan
The High Seas Fleet had assembled in Schillig Roads on the afternoon of 29 October in preparation for sailing the following day, 30 October. A ruse that the operation was a training sortie was employed for security, as was usual practice. The raid on the Thames and the Flanders Coast were scheduled for dawn on 31 October and the battle with the British Fleet in the afternoon and evening of the same day. The evening of 29 October was marked by unrest and serious acts of indiscipline in the German Fleet, as the men became convinced their commanders were intent on sacrificing them, to sabotage the Armistice negotiations. A large number of stokers from Derfflinger and Von der Tann failed to return from shore leave and were rounded up by the authorities; mass insubordination occurred on Thüringen, Kaiserin, Helgoland and Regensburg; and mutinous demonstrations took place in König, Kronprinz Wilhelm and Markgraf. Even in the fleet flagship Baden the mood of the crew was dangerous. The mutinous behavior was confined to the crews of the larger ships; the crews of torpedo-boats, submarines and minesweepers remained loyal. Admiral Hipper cancelled the operation on 30 October and ordered the fleet to disperse, in the hope of quelling the insurrection. When ships of the III. Battle Squadron, arrived at Kiel via the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal on 01 November, their men helped spark the Kiel mutiny on 03 November.
Aftermath and Legacy
The disparity in forces was roughly 2-to-1 in favour of the British. Had the battle been joined, it would have involved some 69 capital ships (in comparison with 58 involved at Jutland).
Writing after the war, Admiral Scheer asserted that “it was highly probable an expedition of the Fleet might achieve a favourable result. If the Fleet suffered losses, it was to be assumed that the enemy’s injuries would be in proportion, and that we should still have sufficient forces to protect the U-boat campaign in the North Sea, which would have to be resumed if the negotiations should make imperative a continuation of the struggle with all the means at our disposal.” The High Seas Fleet had undertaken similar diversionary attacks intended to draw British units into a submarine/mine ambush before: the Action of 19 August 1916 was the one occasion when this tactic came closest to succeeding. On 27 October, the German Government had agreed to surrender the fleet as part of the armistice; thus in strictly material terms, the German Navy had nothing to lose.
Admiral Beatty’s intentions are not recorded but there seems no doubt that he would have sailed as soon as the Germans were reported to be at sea and would have aggressively pursued battle. Given the distances involved, if the German sortie were reported promptly and the Grand Fleet sailed immediately on receipt of such a report, there was every possibility that they could have cut off the German line of retreat and forced a fight to the finish.[o] Admiral Hipper seemed well aware of the risk in this plan, and expressed a sanguinary attitude about it: “a battle for the honour of the fleet in this war, even if it were a death battle, it would be the foundation for a new German fleet”.
Henry Newbolt, the official historian of the Royal Navy during the First World War, compared Hipper’s planned operation with Michiel de Ruyter’s Raid on the Medway in June 1667, when the Dutch Fleet launched a surprise attack on the English naval bases in the Thames estuary, inflicting a serious defeat and in consequence securing a more favourable peace treaty for the Netherlands at the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch War.
More recently, it has been argued that the plan was a deliberate act of counter-revolution by the German Naval High Command against Prince Max of Baden and the peace party: regardless of the outcome of the battle, the launching of the attack would have hopelessly compromised the armistice negotiations and the credibility of Prince Max’s government.